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More Than a Number: ECU’s Morgan Johnson Still Guided by Jackie Robinson’s Example 

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When she was in elementary school, Morgan Johnson flipped open a book that changed the world. At least, the world as seen through the eyes of a third grader. As she turned the pages, Negro Leagues legends like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, formerly unknown to her, came to life. And when she read about Jackie Robinson taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, she discovered that history, while the story of the past, often has the power to shape the future.

A decade later, still inspired by Robinson, she honored him by wearing his number when Clemson took the field for its first ever softball game. 

“I became fascinated with the book because they looked like me and played baseball—I was already into softball, but they gave me more inspiration,” Johnson recalled. “When I went to Clemson, I decided I wanted to wear No. 42 because of Jackie Robinson, his perseverance and his resilience dealing with everything that’s going on during the Civil Rights Movement—and still being able to play the game with passion. I carried that with me because that’s what helped push me to be my best and know that when trials do come my way, I can make it through.”

Five years later, she’s at a new school, holding down the heart of the order for East Carolina. She’s wearing a new number. But what inspired her about Robinson’s story still guides her as she makes her way through life, whether coming back from two ACL injuries on the softball field or pursuing a master’s in public health and trying to address inequalities in disadvantaged communities. These days, she doesn’t need to wear a number to honor Robinson. She’s doing that just fine by living her life.  

Perseverance and Patience

Johnson could easily be done with softball by now, rather than playing her fifth season and preparing to return to East Carolina for a sixth in 2025. She could have been fed up with the surgeries and long hours of rehab. Few would have faulted her for feeling bitter about a game that hasn’t reciprocated the love she’s continually shown it. With a degree in hand and two scars on her knee, she could have moved on in life after playing sparingly as a senior at Clemson a season ago.  

It’s not as if schools were beating down her door after she entered the portal. She had an impressive academic transcript, a voluminous medical history and scant statistical record. 

That isn’t how the story was supposed to go. Before she ever wore No. 42 in college, Johnson wore Gibson’s number in youth softball. It seemed fitting for a big kid with a big swing who hit the ball a county mile. Despite suffering a concussion during fall ball in 2019, that power earned her a place in Clemson’s starting lineup for the first game in program history the following spring. She started in each of the first five games, driving in two runs to help the Tigers win their first game on Feb. 9, 2020, the third day of the season. And her final day of the season. 

Her knee had been bothering her on and off for some time, discomfort she chalked up to old basketball injuries in high school. She wore a brace for added protection, but in the last game of the opening weekend, she made the turn at first base after a hit and felt the knee collapse. Surgery to repair her ACL ruled her out for the remainder of the COVID-shortened season. 

The pandemic added its own challenges to the recovery process, with student-athletes separated from coaches and training staff. But putting aside what she described as a “cloud of sadness” that descended in the immediate aftermath of an injury days before Clemson’s home opener, she found a good support network within her family and started in on recovery.

“I was really just excited to just get back playing, and I was working hard every day to make sure that happened,” Johnson said. “When we came back to Clemson, I got cleared and I just started to feel more gratitude, more appreciation, more thankfulness that God gave me another opportunity to play. I felt the resilience and perseverance of Jackie Robinson. I just felt like myself again, and I had fun enjoying the game.” 

Then, going back for a fly ball late in a game, she landed awkwardly while trying to make a catch at the fence. She felt the now-familiar flash of pain. She knew. She had torn the ACL. After playing a part-time role in 2021, totaling just 40 at-bats, she missed the entire 2022 season. 

“Honestly, I felt like God still wanted me to learn something,” Johnsons said. “I was still impatient. I was still like, ‘Boy, why can’t I just hit all these home runs? Why can’t I just do all this now? I feel like I was trying to force things that weren’t meant for me at the time.” 

She made it all the way back for the second time, but on a loaded Clemson team that advanced to a super regional a season ago, she made just 16 appearances as a pinch hitter (posting an impressive .438 OBP in that role). 

Second Chance at East Carolina

Johnson still wanted to play. With an eye toward graduate school, it was why she entered the portal in the first place. But the weeks progressed with little communication from coaches. If she wasn’t at war with herself over the decision to play on, there were at least some skirmishes. She had been at Clemson for four years. She had relationships there. She had support there. Moving to a new city, learning a new campus, meeting new people, it all seemed like a lot for someone who was all too familiar with going back to square one. 

“If I didn’t get any more opportunities or anything, I was going to let it go in July,” Johnson said. “The Lord gave me an opportunity, and I was almost too skeptical to take it.” 

Whatever input she got from above, a gentle nudge from her mom also convinced her not to shy away when East Carolina head coach Shane Winkler reached out. The school had a good master’s program in her field, and the softball team needed new blood as Winkler continued rebuilding after taking over prior to the 2022 season. 

“Her size and strength stand out, as soon as you look at her,” Winkler said. “She is a big, strong kid. We were looking to add more pop to the lineup. And you start seeing what she has, the explosiveness., the athleticism for her size. We can start seeing that right away. I’ve known [Clemson assistant Kyle Jamieson] for a long time, and he said same thing. She just needs an opportunity. With the amount of kids we were bringing in, and how we’re turning the program around from last year to this year, what we have is an opportunity. And it’s been a great fit.”

She settled in as the starting first baseman from opening day, when she went 2-for-3 and scored two runs—almost exactly four years to the day after she first tore her ACL. She hit .500 with four walks for the opening weekend. She was just getting started. On Feb. 17, she went 5-for-6 with three home runs and 11 RBIs across a doubleheader against Marshall and Fairfield, a line even Josh Gibson would have admired. That started a stretch of five home runs in seven days. 

As April arrived, she was still hitting a robust .391 with nine home runs and 38 RBIs. 

“I’ve been through so much, and last year I didn’t get the opportunities I wanted as far as playing time with Clemson, so I had a chip on my shoulder,” Johnson allowed. “But also, I was trying to do too much. I put extra pressure on myself instead of just playing the game the way I’ve been playing and having fun. Now, I’m making sure that I’m having fun. There’s always in a competitor in me. I want to dominate every opportunity I get. I want to play every game like it’s my last game. But at the end of the day, I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.”

Embodying Robinson’s Legacy 

The home runs have come with a new number on her back. When she got to East Carolina, she chose No. 27. Coincidentally, that was Robinson’s age when he debuted with Brooklyn’s minor-league affiliate in Montreal after signing with the Dodgers in 1946. But for Johnson, it represents Psalm 27, a bible passage that was meaningful to her during her injury travails at Clemson. 

These days, instead of wearing No. 42 to honor Robinson’s legacy, she lives it.  

Growing up in Illinois and Georgia, she was often the only African American player on her teams—at most one of only three or four in the dugout. One time in school, a close friend quit softball. The friend had been on the junior varsity while Johnson was on varsity. When Johnson asked why she quit, the friend said she was tired of being the only African-American on the team. 

“I never thought about quitting because I was the only one who was African-American,” Johnson said. “But to to see that some people don’t feel comfortable, they feel not really welcomed, it was like ‘Man, OK.’  But honestly, having a good support system, having my family, I never really dealt with much unequal treatment or anything like that. By the grace of God, I was on teams that I felt welcomed and they treated me fairly.” 

Still, she saw the reaction to her success. She saw people as moved by seeing her on the field as she had been reading about Gibson and Robinson. She remembers the elderly man who told her that, after hearing a letter to Robinson she wrote for ESPN several years ago, he drove hours to watch her play a game at Virginia Tech—so that he could say he had seen both of them play in person. And there was the family that only recently drove hundreds of miles so that their kids could take a picture with Johnson after an East Carolina game. 

Even her master’s supervisor’s daughter was enamored watching someone who looked like her launching home runs over the fence. 

“It really helps seeing people that look like you playing a sport,” Johnson said, “Because if you don’t, you’re like ‘Well, I guess I can’t do it.’ It helps show you can do it. You can still pursue what you want to pursue regardless of your color.” 

Among the things she admires most about Robinson, and one of the things she feels is most easily overlooked in his story, is the scope of his Civil Rights Movement work. Beyond a symbol who inspired change through his feats and courage on the baseball field, he took an active role in advancing civil rights through protest, politics, business and organizing after baseball. 

So, perhaps it’s more important than any jersey number that Johnson is now working on her master’s thesis on maternal disparities in African-American women. African American mothers and their infants are far more likely to die than their counterparts, and Johnson wants to understand what is going wrong, from the health care system to American infrastructure. 

These days, she honors the legacy of the man who inspired her through her perseverance in pursuing what she loves. By inspiring others to pursue their dreams. And by using education to try and make a difference. 

A number is one way to honor someone. So is learning to be an inspiration in your own right.  

“It was definitely a definitely a long journey, but I’ve learned so much through it,” Johnson said. “Coming into college, I didn’t know too much about myself. I didn’t know what I was good at—I was just good at softball. But through the injuries, I’ve learned who I was outside softball.”